Napping is on trend. Once considered the pastime of lazy university students and the elderly, in recent years the humble afternoon slumber has been elevated to a more sophisticated status.
Winston Churchill was said to be an advocate of an afternoon nap, believing that it wasn’t nature’s design for mankind to work all day “without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.” More recently, television presenter Louis Theroux told Joe Wick’s podcast that he is fond of “a little nap in the day.”
As for the science, there’s good evidence that napping can help your health, but only if it’s done correctly.
This week, a study found long naps over an hour in length are associated with a 30 per cent greater risk of dying young, and a 34 per cent higher likelihood of cardiovascular disease compared to not napping.
Scary stuff, yet experts are widely in agreement that an afternoon nap can help to improve your performance and make you feel more alert throughout the day. In fact, the benefits of napping are thought to be so pronounced that some Silicon Valley offices have invested in state of the art ‘sleep pods’: bulbous spheres where employees can retreat for uninterrupted shut eye (although the pleasure will set you back around $1,200 a month).
How do you achieve the optimum nap and avoid those unwelcome feelings of grogginess when you wake up? We’ve asked sleep expert and author of How to Sleep Well Dr Neil Stanley for advice.
Rule one: Timing is key
Naps are often unpredictable. You’ve probably experienced the disorientating feeling of drifting off for what feels like ten minutes, only to wake up to darkness outside and a conspicuous drool stain on the pillow.
So if you’re aiming for a health-boosting nap, it’s crucial to get organised. “It’s all about the duration of the nap,” says Dr Stanley. “On average, it takes people 20 minutes to fall asleep. Then after another 20 minutes, you fall into the deep slow-wave stage of sleep.” This means the optimum time for a power nap is 20 minutes, which would require you to schedule a 40 minute time window to fall asleep.
If you are going to opt for a longer nap, then Dr Stanley advises aiming for two hours. This allows you to wake up in the REM period of sleep, which usually occurs somewhere between 70 – 120 minutes after you’ve drifted off.
“We are preferentially designed to wake up during REM sleep. If you wake up during deep sleep, you wake up feeling groggy – as though you’ve been hit by a bus – and not refreshed at all,” he said.
Rule two: Avoid food and drink before – if you can
In Spain, the Mecca of napping, a siesta often follows lunch.
But Dr Stanley advises that taking a long nap after eating a big meal, or drinking alcohol, isn’t always advisable, particularly if you’re opting for a longer nap. “If you’ve had a huge business lunch and a couple of bottles of wine, then having a two hour nap in the afternoon isn’t going to be the best thing you can do. You’re going to be hot from burning off all the calories and your body is going to be working hard. The whole point of sleep is that you’re not doing any work.” he says.
If a post-prandial snooze is inevitable (think of the heavy eyes that creep in after too much Christmas turkey), then Dr Stanley says to keep it short, at 20 minutes. “For a nap of that length, eating before shouldn’t really be a factor,” he adds.
If you are prone to acid reflux, eating a heavy meal before a nap is best avoided all together. A study published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, found that heartburn and reflux were worse during daytime naps than during nighttime sleep among participants who already suffered with the condition.
Rule three: Afternoon works best
Despite the food factor, siestas are perfectly timed. According to Dr Stanley, we all have a “post-lunch dip”, which is a natural drop in alertness that generally occurs between the hours of two and four in the afternoon (this is why many of us feel tired in the afternoon, despite having a lunch break). “If you have the choice, this would be the most preferential time to have a nap,” says Dr Stanley.
Siestas might be good for our cardiovascular health, too. Researchers at the Asklepieion General Hospital in Greece studied 212 people and found that those who took a siesta experienced a fall in blood pressure. Overall, taking a nap during the day was associated with an average 5mmHg drop in blood pressure.
Dr Stanley recommends avoiding taking a nap in the morning, as this is our “rising phase,” when we are generally most alert.
Rule four: Approach the ‘caffeine nap’ with caution
One of the more recent trends to hit the world of slumber is ‘the caffeine nap’ – that is, consuming a stimulant, whether it’s coffee, tea or an energy drink, just before a 20 minute nap. Caffeine takes roughly 20 to 30 minutes to absorb into the bloodstream, so by the time you wake up you will feel twice as energised: once by the caffeine, and once by the sleep. Genius, right?
For Dr Stanley, this approach requires a delicate balance of consuming “the right dose of caffeine at the right time.” Too much and it can disturb your sleep, preventing you from getting the nap you need; too little and you won’t feel any benefits at all.
“Caffeine only boosts your performance by 30 minutes, whereas a power nap will boost your performance for 3-4 hours,” he said. “The amount of caffeine that you need during the day to boost your alertness is significantly more than what is needed to disturb your sleep at night.”
Because caffeine has an average half life of 5 – 10 hours (it varies from person to person) even having a caffeinated beverage at midday could disturb your sleep. Unless you’re prepared for the military operation of measuring exactly the right amount of caffeine you need to sleep undisturbed (energy drinks like red bull display their caffeine content on the outside) then it’s best just to stick to a good old fashioned nap.
According to Dr Stanley, sleep does “95 per cent of the heavy lifting” in a caffeine nap anyway.
Rule five: Location, location, location
For the optimum power nap, the general advice is to try to recreate the setting you fall asleep in. While this varies for everyone, generally it involves having the curtains closed, your body under the duvet, and minimal light in the room.
However if you’re a frequent napper, Dr Stanley advises that it can be healthier to create a small distinction between nap time and sleep time: “If you make the experience too much like going to bed, your body won’t know if it’s having a 20 minute nap and an eight hour session,” he said.
That being said, you can still nap even if you can’t access your own bed. “It just needs to be somewhere where you can switch off and not feel like you’re being observed,” says Dr Stanley. He maintains it’s not essential that you sleep at all; even just “closing your eyes and zoning out from the outside world is beneficial.”
In Japan a concept known as Inemuri, which translates as “sleep while being present” is popular among busy employees. The rules are simple: you can sleep anywhere, as long as you don’t look like you’re sleeping (so no drooling, or snoring). It’s thought to have a regenerative effect that is almost as effective as a good night’s shut-eye itself.
Rule six: Wake up to an alarm
The best way to wake up from a nap is by setting an alarm, according to Dr Stanley. This prevents you waking up in the wrong stage of your sleep cycle.
“You need to get the benefit of the nap, without the negative consequences. If you don’t set an alarm and then you wake up after 40 minutes, you will feel exhausted,” he said. “Even with longer naps, set an alarm for two hours. Often your brain will wake you up just before your alarm goes of, because it’s processed that you want to wake up at that time. It alerts you before it has to hear the unpleasant noise.”